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How short-term political vision and public policy have conspired to create migrant problem there is no more turning away from

In administering welfare schemes, migrants are not equated with state residents, be it the regulation of minimum wages, housing, and political participation.

Written by Shailaja Chandra |
Updated: May 9, 2020 7:50:51 am
According to the Constitution, urban development is the responsibility of municipal governments and the management of migration is one facet of that. (C R Sasikumar)

Amidst rightful jubilation over the execution of a colossal nationwide lockdown, the plight of hapless migrants has raised an important, long dormant issue. Their predicament has triggered a volley of questions — about why the magnitude of the migrant exodus was not anticipated, leading to a crisis situation. Anguish over their hunger, and unresponsiveness to their natural urge to return home, bereft of daily earnings, has received extensive media coverage.

But the basic reason why migrants remain the way they do has not been discussed. This article does not answer the valid questions but, instead, attempts to unravel who the migrants are and why they remain marginalised for decades.

The fact that half the population of a megapolis like Mumbai or Delhi lives in slums and shanties is well known. All governments make attempts to improve their lives. Within a couple of days of the COVID lockdown, Delhi slum-dwellers received free rations to last six weeks, women got money and pensioners saw a doubling of their deposits. The needy got hot meals twice a day within 48 hours of the lockdown and, ever since, 2 million people (the population of the city of Patna) are being fed daily.

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Then why do we see hundreds of migrants on television screens complaining bitterly about staying hungry? Why did the Supreme Court have to advise one ration card for all during the lockdown? Is there a difference between slum dwellers and migrants? Seasonal or permanent? Settled or stranded? To understand this, one has to see the constitutional provisions and policies governing the political economy. The latter endure migrants for economic reasons without amalgamating them under the state’s food safety nets.

According to the Constitution, urban development is the responsibility of municipal governments and the management of migration is one facet of that. While the Centre can give directions, the states have the powers to legislate on urban matters. Of course, like much else, policies are determined by where the political advantage lies. This largely explains the huge disparities that continue to exist in levels of socio-economic development.

In administering welfare schemes, migrants are not equated with state residents, be it the regulation of minimum wages, housing, and political participation. A World Bank study has referred to “migrant unfriendly policies” that prevail throughout the country. Every state maintains reservation in government jobs and higher education, targets foodgrain distribution and provides social welfare essentially for the state’s own residents. Nurturing migrants is considered suicidal as it upsets the local residents who assert first claim on benefits, the Marathi Manoos syndrome being a case in point. Political parties find it difficult and unproductive to promote migrants with no roots as voter constituencies.


While migrants can access hospitals and receive treatment, this has never extended to habitation. On first arrival new migrants just try and get enough room to sleep. Eventually, after years, they might negotiate an address to show continuity of stay, which alone can enable them to get an election card and a ration card. For decades, they have travelled to the cities — a thousand migrants disembark just at Old Delhi railway station every day. Initially, they depend on mama-chacha networks while scouting for work. After years, they fetch the family. Seasonal workers are different, as they often come as a family. Many were left stranded after the lockdown.

Successive chief ministers have treated migrants as “not our problem”. Most migrants would be having ration cards in their home states but these are not transferable. Only when elections are on the horizon are they facilitated in getting a local Pehchan Patra (election card) and a ration card. But until those documents are acquired (or procured), they remain outside the welfare net.

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The magnitude of inter-state migration in India was reported to be close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016, while Census 2011 pegged inter- and intra-state movement at close to 140 million then. Some estimates pitch migrants to be at least 10 per cent of the labour force, contributing substantially to the GDP.

Since the Constitution enjoins citizens with the right to reside and settle anywhere in the country, no permissions are required to move or stay anywhere — mostly on public land with the tacit approval of several political and public authorities. Although the state is enabled to make laws imposing reasonable restrictions in public interest, they have shied away from regulating migrant settlement. Indispensable as they are, migrants are considered unsupportable in normal times.

During the COVID pandemic, the media has highlighted a situation no welfare state can afford to turn away from much longer. Turning a Nelson’s eye to the arrival of migrants and letting them rough it out on their own can contribute to unmanageable health hazards putting entire populations at risk. Permitting the vicious cycle of slums and squalor has shown how infection can permeate into dense populations. If COVID has not taught this lesson, nothing will. The states must now start to register every migrant. Only regular head counts will enable a correct measure of the entitlements.

But registration is only the first step. Finding state resources for them, unless billed to projects hiring migrants, will be mind-blowing. Registration will be a huge challenge. Unless the processes are simple, transparent and low cost, they can become exclusionary and exploitative.

The Aadhaar card could be used to kick-start migrant registration. The states with greater pull factors will need to take a call on habitation and welfare — if not spurred by humanitarianism, then at least by the obligation to safeguard the health of their residents.


This article appeared in the print edition of May 9, 2020, under the title ‘Story of the nowhere people’. The writer is a former secretary to the government of India and former chief secretary, Delhi

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First published on: 09-05-2020 at 12:30:48 am
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